Andrew Lester, 84, who walked with a cane and spoke so quietly he could not be heard throughout the Missouri Liberty Courtroom, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to the black teenager who shot Ralph Yar , he mistakenly knocked on Lester’s front door looking for his sons and brothers.
The shooting has drawn the attention of the president and reignited the national debate on gun policy amid shock over a 16-year-old overachiever who was shot first in the head and then in the arm during a routine stop in a residential neighborhood .
The case was one of three in recent days involving young people who were shot dead after being in the wrong place by mistake. A 20-year-old woman has been killed in upstate New York when the car she was traveling in veered into the wrong lane. In Texas, two cheerleaders were shot dead after one of them got into a car they mistook for hers.
Yarl was shot in the head, but miraculously survived.
Some civil rights leaders and Yarl’s family attorney, Lee Merritt, urged prosecutors to charge Lester with a hate crime, noting, “He’s only armed with his dark skin.”
Clay County Attorney Zachary Thompson said first-degree assault, a higher-level crime with a maximum penalty of life in prison, is more than a hate crime charge. While activists have called for the Justice Department to investigate, it’s unclear whether it will. Messages seeking comment from the department were not returned.
After paying $20,000 (10 percent of his $200,000 bond) and agreeing to surrender any weapons and cut ties with Yarl or his family, Lester remains free. He also agreed to have his mobile phone monitored.
Merritt said Yael’s relatives did not attend Wednesday’s hearing because they were emotionally exhausted. Leicester’s lawyer, Steve Salmon, did not walk out of court to speak to reporters.
The shooting happened around 10 p.m. Thursday. Police Chief Stacey Graves said Yarl’s mother told him to pick up his twin brother from a home on 115th Terrace.
Yarl, an All-State band member and an honor student, made the mistake of going to 115th Street—one block from where he wanted to be. When he rang the bell, Lester came to the door and shot the teen with a .32 caliber Smith & Wesson 1888 revolver.
Lester told officers he lived alone and was “scared to death” when he saw Yar on the porch because he thought someone was trying to break in, police said in court documents.
There was no conversation before the shooting, but afterward, as Yar got up to run, he heard Lester yell, “Don’t come here,” the statement said.
According to court documents, Yarl ran to multiple families for help before finding someone willing to call the police.
Merritt said the teen wasn’t exactly an imposing figure.
“The question is, at 5-8 and 140 pounds, what did Andrew Lester see?” Merritt asked at a downtown rally Tuesday. “The answer is that he saw a black man. For him, that was enough. Unless law enforcement agreed with him, that would be a tragedy.”
Legal experts expected Lester to assert self-defense and invoke Missouri’s “stand your ground” law, sometimes called “castle doctrine.” Missouri is one of about 30 states with similar laws that say residents do not have to retreat if their homes are threatened, but can respond with force, even deadly force.
But Merritt said the law only applies when “someone is on your property and they want to harm you….” We don’t have any evidence of this. Castleism doesn’t apply in this case. “
The shooting outraged many in Kansas City and across the country. President Joe Biden spoke with Yar on Monday and invited him to the White House on Tuesday.
“No parent should worry that their child will be shot after ringing the wrong doorbell,” Biden tweeted. “We must continue to fight gun violence.”
Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who until Wednesday remained silent on the shooting, accused Biden of politicizing it.
“I don’t want some 16-year-old being shot for walking into the wrong house — we just don’t want that to happen. It’s a tragedy,” Parson told the Kansas City Star. “It is very unfortunate when the president of the United States is trying to make a political statement about a very serious tragedy.”
Prosecutor Thompson said Monday there was a “racial element” to the shooting, but did not elaborate. The Yar family met privately with Thompson, Merritt said. Prosecutors said he “echoed what law enforcement had said that clearly there was a racial dynamic in this case,” said Merritt, who called the answers “superficial.”
Lester’s next court date is June 1.
“From now on, the state will push to move this case forward as quickly as the law allows,” Thompson said in a statement after Wednesday’s hearing.
Salter reported from O’Fallon, Missouri. Heather Hollingsworth of Mission, Kansas contributed to this report.
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